"Y'all... I might not be ready for this. I may be a former junior figure skating champion, blogger extraordinaire, and very talented amateur pâtissier, but being a freshman on the Samwell University hockey team is a whole new challenge. It's nothing like co-ed club hockey back in Georgia! First of all? There's checking. And then, there is Jack."
Warning: This review consists of incoherent fangirling over hockey boys and virtual cheek-pinching of the absolute cutie that is Eric Bittle. Sorry not sorry.
I think it goes without saying that 2020 has been an absolute shitshow of a year, and even though we're only in June I'm pretty much ready to write the whole thing off. Thankfully in the midst of all this general crappiness I stumbled across Check, Please! and oh my lord this book has been the ray of sunshine that I needed to get through my first week back at work post-lockdown.
Check, Please! is the book equivalent of a warm hug. It is just adorable. Like seriously, if it were any cuter my little gay heart would explode. It's essentially Heartstopper crossed with Yuri On Ice and if that isn't enough to make you want to go and read it instantly then quite frankly we can't be friends and you've got no business being on this blog. GOOD DAY, SIR.
Somehow, this graphic novel has flown under my radar for seven years. And considering my bookshelves are 90% LGBTQ+ books, that's a pretty remarkable achievement. Thankfully, my obsessive scrolling through Instagram has finally paid off and I am forever indebted to @jakes.books whose gorgeous post brought Bitty onto my feed and into my life, and that's it... I am officially obsessed.
I honestly can't believe it's taken me this long to discover Check, Please!. I don't know whether it's just not as hyped here in the UK (I've never seen it stocked in a UK bookshop which is weird given how popular Alice Oseman's Heartstopper series is?) or whether I'm just hanging out in the wrong bookish circles. If it's the latter, that's a major concern because if it's taken me this long to discover Check, Please! then who knows what other gay smoosh I'm missing out on?! 😭
(Out of curiosity: if you're a UK blogger and you're familiar with the series, how did you come across it? Have you ever seen it out in the wild in the UK?)
If like me you've somehow managed to avoid all the hype surrounding Check, Please!, allow me to give you a quick (spoiler-free) rundown.
What's it about?
Check, Please! is a webcomic written and illustrated by Ngozi Ukazu. After an overwhelmingly successful Kickstarter campaign, the series was published in book form in 2018 and the sequel, Sticks and Scones was released a couple of months ago (keep your eyes peeled for a review coming soon! 👀). The story centres around Eric "Bitty" Bittle, junior figure skating champion and vlogger superstar, as he navigates life as a freshman at Samwell University. A natural on the ice, Bitty thinks joining the university's men's hockey team is a no-brainer... but he quickly discovers there's one major difference between figure skating and ice hockey: checking.
(For the not-so-sporty readers out there, "checking" is where a player crashes into their opponent in order to separate them from the puck or disrupt their play. It's what makes hockey a full-contact sport and it sounds kinda terrifying if you ask me).
Bitty's a good player, but if he can't get over his fear of being checked he won't make the final cut. Thankfully, team captain Jack Zimmermann is here to help though with his handsome looks and brooding energy, Bitty is finding it more than a little hard to concentrate...
So what do you get when you take a soft lil baker boy like Eric Bittle and put him in a frat house with a bunch of hockey bros? Absolute perfection, that's what.
In my opinion, Check, Please! has all the key ingredients (hehe 🙊) of a perfect gay book:
Slow-burn romance ✔
Adorable main character with a passion for patisserie ✔
Brooding love interest ✔
Cast of supportive secondary characters ✔
Diverse representation of masculinities ✔
HONESTLY GUYS, I JUST LOVE IT SO HECKIN' MUCH.
"But why do you love it so much, Liam?" I hear you cry! Well, little one, allow me to explain...
4 REASONS WHY I LOVE CHECK, PLEASE.
1. My Lil Bitty Boy
UGH. This boy. I love him so much. Never have I related to a protagonist more than I have with Eric Freaking Bittle. A soft lil gay boy who loves to bake and sings Beyoncé in the shower. UMM HELLO? IS THIS ME?! Oh... wait... nope. This boy is sporty and talented. Never mind. 😭
On a serious note, it's great to see a gay character who is so unapologetically himself - especially in an environment like varsity sports where homophobia is so deeply entrenched. I love that Ngozi Ukazu decided not to take the obvious approach by having Bitty struggle to overcome homophobia and intolerance among his teammates in order to be a successful player. I'm not a fan of gay narratives that centre on homophobic violence but I'm even less of a fan of books where a gay character is coded straight and has to pander to the straight guys in order to be accepted. I mean, gross. Thankfully, Check, Please! does none of these things. Not once does Bitty try to adapt his personality to fit in with the other guys because (1) Bitty is secure in his masculinity and proud of his sexuality, and (2) the Samwell's Men's Hockey team are absolute sweethearts who couldn't care less about who their teammates want to date. If anything, it's the other players who seem to adapt to Bitty. There's just something about his presence that gets the boys to open up and expose their own vulnerabilities and it's really sweet seeing such a positive, identity-affirming storyline play out on the page.
In some ways, the book reminded me a lot of Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg (an excellent novel btw if you haven't read it). In Konigsberg's novel, the main character Rafe is an out gay teen starting his freshman year at university. Like Bitty, he's a promising athlete and he immediately signs up to play on the university soccer team. But whereas Bitty is open with his teammates about his sexuality, Rafe is reluctant to share that part of himself and decides to go back into the closet because he doesn't want the other players to see him as "that gay guy" whose entire identity is defined by his sexuality. I won't get into spoilers but suffice to say hiding part of who you are never works out well and Rafe learns this the hard way.
There's an emphasis on coming out narratives in gay YA and when characters choose not to disclose their sexuality it's often met with disappointment from the reader. But Rafe has a very legitimate reason for not wanting to come out - one not based on shame, but on society's flawed understanding of what it means to be gay. I've been there myself. It took me a long time to tell others I was gay and even longer before I'd label myself LGBTQ+ because in my mind being LGBTQ+ meant being camp, effeminate and flamboyant and I didn't want to be seen in that way. Looking back, it's clear I was working through a lot of internalised homophobia during my first couple of years at university even though in my head I was out and proud and had nothing to hide. But that's homophobia for you - it's insidious and it takes years to unlearn the prejudices that you're conditioned with from birth. Over the years, my understanding of what it means to be gay has shifted radically and while education has played a role, a lot of it comes down to exposure - seeing queer people in roles that defy the stereotype of sprinkles, glitter and unicorns that society so often reduces us to. (Not that I have an issue with such ICONIC behaviour, btw - I practically shit rainbows at this point). This is why diverse representation is so important and it's one of the reasons why I love Bitty so much. Men's sport is still lagging behind when it comes to queer visibility so books like Check, Please! that show that gay men can be skilled athletes and key players in team sports without having to compromise on their gender and sexuality are absolutely crucial.
I understand Rafe's justification for concealing his sexuality in Openly Straight but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't relieved that Ngozi took a different direction with Check, Please!. Because Bitty is the role model I didn't get to see in the books I read as a teen. Not only is he gay - he's athletic, talented, uncensored, flamboyant and confident. If I'd come across a character like Bitty ten years ago, he would have blown my tiny teenage mind because as far as I was concerned, these qualities were an either / or situation; you didn't get to be all those things and live a happy life. Bitty is a powerful role model because he rewrites the rulebook in terms of what being gay means. I wish I'd come across characters like him when I was a teenager, but the reality is that ten years ago characters like Bitty didn't exist - or if they did, they were part of some online Tumblr sub-culture you had to go looking to find; they certainly weren't New York Times bestsellers - which, by the way, Check Please! is (*screams in gay*).
The fact that Bitty gets to be all of the above without having to compromise on who he is is an incredibly powerful statement and one that we need to keep hearing if we ever hope to dismantle the toxic barriers that make being openly gay such an impossibility when it comes to men's sport. As Bitty puts it in Sticks & Scones:
"It's not just about me. If Samwell wins... it's almost like the culture that has allowed me to be who I am - wins. And we can show the country that. We can show everybody."
So yeah, tl;dr: Bitty is a boss ass bitch who sings Beyoncé and slays on the ice, showing that gay guys can be athletes and just as talented as their straight counterparts when it comes to sport. Three cheers for gay jocks! 💪
2. Want Your Bad Bromance
As a gay, introverted book nerd I've always found bro culture intimidating, so naturally my friendship groups have been small, close-knit and primarily female. So reading Check, Please! was, for me, a bit like watching a David Attenborough documentary, gaining an entirely new perspective on some alien species... "Here we see the Straight Boys congregating in their natural habitat, the locker room. This pre-game ritual of huddling and chanting increases testosterone levels, energising the players before they head out onto the ice."
Honestly, who'd have thought straight boys could be so fascinating? 🤯
In all seriousness, I absolutely loved the friendship between the Samwell Men's Hockey Team and it made me realise that I shouldn't be so quick to judge the gaggles of straight boys that pass me on the street. Yes, they might all sport identical undercuts, and yes, they might all wear the exact same skinny joggers and white Air Maxes (tbf, I'm also guilty of this 😂) but that doesn't mean they're homophobes or see me as some sort of target. My boyfriend is part of a big group of bros and now that I've got to know them all I can honestly say that while boys are most certainly gross and disgusting, they're also really cute and they have your back no matter what. Getting to see Bitty gain acceptance into such a strong friendship group regardless of his sexuality was such a heartwarming moment, and I love that Ukazu is breaking down this idea of toxic masculinity and showing that being part of a frat group isn't contingent on homophobia and misogyny.
While I absolutely love my babies Bitty and Jack, one of my favourite things about Check, Please! is the secondary characters who make up the rest of the hockey team. Because while Check, Please! is first and foremost a love story between two boys, it's also very much a story about sport, team spirit and brotherhood. All of the boys have their own distinct personalities and I loved getting to know them as the story progressed. I absolutely adore Ransom and Holster whose bromance makes Bitty look straight by comparison. But my absolute favourite was the sweet baby Chowder (Samwell's goalie) who is absolutely precious and must be protected at all costs. LOOK AT HIS CUTE LITTLE FACE.
3. 'Swawesome Bonus Content!
One of the great things about the Check, Please! books is that they include tons of bonus content. There are extra comics that provide further backstory along with a bunch of tweets from Bitty that expand on events that happen in the graphic novel and offer a behind-the-scenes peek at what the boys get up to when they're not on the ice. It's a nice touch that makes an already believable bunch of characters feel just that little bit more real.
These are some of my favourite tweets... 😂
And some of my favourite bonus comic panels...
And just in case you haven't noticed, it's probably a good time to point out that while Check, Please is a combination of Heartstopper and Yuri On Ice it is *a lot* more explicit. Expect swearing, excessive drinking, hook ups and gross unhygienic frat-house furniture. If you're faint-hearted, this might not be the book for you 😂
4. Jack Zimmerman's Ass.
This last one doesn't really need much explaining. If Check, Please! has taught me anything, it's that hockey boys have got CAKE and that I need to do more squats or something because I am in dire need of a hockey butt. #GimmeDatBittyBooty.
I absolutely adored this book. I loved the characters, I loved the story arc, I loved the illustration style - I loved it all. Everything about this book was great. But don't be fooled by the wholesome cutie that is Eric Bittle - this book might look adorable on the surface, but it's filled with all the dirty jokes and gross humour you'd expect from a bunch of frat bros. And I am here for it. If I had to make one criticism, it would be that occasionally the scenes feel slightly disjointed and the narrative isn't always the most cohesive - but given that the series started out as a webcomic that was updated over time, that's kind of to be expected. Aside from that, this book is absolute perfection. If you're looking for a cute, light-hearted queer romance, this is the book for you.
Stay tuned for a review of Check Please! - Book 2: Sticks & Scones coming soon!
Have you read Check, Please!? Who was your favourite character?
Do you have any other favourite LGBTQ+ graphic novels?
Let me know in the comments below!